Jeresneyka Rose always has wanted to be identified as an artist first, the creator of colorful caricatures and social-activism portraits that have garnered her a bevy of customers and enthusiastic reviews on her Art by Rizzo website. But it is Rose’s community activism in feeding and housing the disadvantaged that has won her a spot as the newest board member of Westside Cares, the food, funding and health care interfaith nonprofit currently headed up by Kristy Milligan.
Rose said her own work with Southeast food pantries led to a fortuitous meeting with Milligan at a recent panel discussion, but the board position seems like the manifestation of the ideal mix of art and activism Rose hoped would define her life. Not only does WSC have one of the highest profiles of organizations in town helping the disadvantaged, but Rose said it is critical to develop links among Westside, Southeast and Helen Hunt/Hillside neighborhoods, so that all nonprofits are working for a common purpose.
Rose’s business carries a social warrior element as well, and not just for the themes of the art she sells. Since late winter, she has been in a battle with retail giant Walmart, who used a modified design of hers, still bearing her digital watermark, in prints sold through the Walmart website. Rose said the legal battle with Walmart is ongoing, but she is less concerned with lost revenue lost than the seeming arrogance with which the retailer used her art and assumed the plagiarism would not be spotted.
Rose was born in Panama and grew up in Brooklyn, attending schools where art was rarely offered as an elective. After receiving a gift of art supplies in high school, Rose discovered she had both talent and desire to design tattoos and cards for friends. Over time, this grew to a small business on both Etsy and Big Cartel, but the rapid growth in interest convinced her to go solo via Twitter and her own website.
The Business Journal talked to Rose on the intersections of art and activism.
Many self-taught artists spend a good deal of time selling work on Etsy, without expanding on brand or presence. How did you evolve to the Art by Rizzo site so quickly?
I started out with Etsy and Big Cartel, but in the beginning, I still thought of visual art as a hobby. It was all happenstance, I used to date someone who bought me a canvas for Valentine’s Day, and I just put it away in the closet. Then when I moved out, I found it, and began painting in my empty apartment. I liked the experience, and when I posted it, I got great response. Eventually, I got requests for commissioned art. I didn’t like the aesthetics of existing sites, so I designed my own website and got a Squarespace account. I learned through trial and error how to make art and how to make a business of art — two very different things, of course. I started vending at events, learning at art festivals how to make and price prints. At one point between jobs, I told myself, ‘I can actually make money doing this. And if I try, what’s the worst that could happen?’ At that point, I started marketing on social media. Right before the pandemic was when I started being an artist full time. What seemed at first like a disaster turned into a blessing, as the pandemic gave me time to figure out the local art world and different connections in Colorado Springs, all with a goal of making art equitable.
There are many local artists who might have a studio at Cottonwood or showings at local galleries, but still haven’t fully considered bringing art into the community, art-as-merch-table as it were. When you use political struggles or musicians as subject matter, does it help drive that vision of art in the community?
From the very beginning, I never cared about trendy art, art as pop artifice, I wanted to do what I personally found interesting. It could be a portrait, a political issue like abortion bans or Black Lives Matter. I found art is a great avenue for that. People can always choose not to listen, but in conservative Colorado Springs, if they find art taboo, they will look at it, even if they disagree. It could be speaking out on issues, or to celebrate joy, as I have tons of happy pieces as well.
Pre-pandemic, and pre-summer of BLM, I assume there were many focused artists who would say, ‘Yeah, people’s art, it’s all well and good, but not my thing,’ but then as 2020 progressed, artists gravitated more toward your way of thinking, seeing more value in being in the streets. Could you notice that?
Absolutely. My biggest testament was that even though I had been creating art just like this for years, I had applied for showings in different galleries and art spaces, and I was generally denied due to my style of work. Now, they’re begging me to work with them. It’s so interesting how major changes in the perception of the world changed. The times are quieter now, but I will keep on doing what I have always been doing, even if I hear the occasional negative feedback as a Black woman, as a Latinx, I just have to channel that into something productive. My work has definitely been more successful since late 2020.
You got a fair amount of attention focused on Walmart using your art without permission this past spring. Was that ever resolved, and did it end up having positive ramifications?
It’s not resolved, still going through slow legal processes. I never found out through some shocking ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been ripped off by Walmart!’ revelation. Friends just noticed a piece of art on a Walmart website. It was an indication of how corporations can do anything to people who don’t have as much money as them. A print they had for sale had its background color changed, but still carried the digital watermark I had placed on the piece. I initially tweeted as an expression of frustration, that the company would actually take my name off, keep the watermark, and continue to sell it, knowing full well they did not originate the art. It brought awareness to my brand, but we need to hold people accountable. It is not my job to chase after them, they should be reaching out to me, saying ‘We messed up, we’ll make it right.’ They have not done that. And I’m not the only person this has happened to. People should not have to watermark their work; the burden should always be on the corporation.
So what brought about your association with Westside Cares?
It was my work with CommUNITY Food Pantry. Being an artist is an important sense of self-identification, but my activism is maybe even more important in saying who I am. At the root of things, I feel that no one should be homeless or hungry. This came from my youth, as my parents often couldn’t make ends meet, and we would go to food pantries. I didn’t grow up thinking it was a shame, just a second way of grocery shopping. I was working a food pantry in Southeast Springs, and ended up on a panel with Kristy, and everything just clicked. We were on the same page the entire time. A few months later, Kristy emailed me to tell me of a board opening, and asked me to please consider it. It didn’t take me long to say yes, even though I don’t know much about the Westside. I quickly learned this was a true community with its own issues to solve. Westside Cares is very intentional about their resources and how they are applied to the community.
People usually associate the area with just OCC or Manitou, but there’s such a complex set of issues with the community center, with the “No Man’s Land” checkerboard area between OCC and Manitou and its homeless challenges, just a host of issues. Do you think your familiarity with southeast city communities gives you an opportunity to link together groups citywide?
Absolutely. The West- and Southeast sides are not that far apart, and experience many similar problems despite different demographics. It’s cool that I can get experience about what’s going on with the Westside, while they can learn from me of Southeast city problems. Finding out how people on public assistance responded to getting their first round of stimulus checks was a good example. All of a sudden there was little need for food assistance as folks went out to spend their checks. We need to anticipate and address those changes. We all can work with Food to Power at Hillside to make sure food never goes to waste. Hillside, by the way, is a community that experiences its own set of problems that is not always considered in the city at large.
What about Downtown? There’s a lot of redevelopment going on, but sometimes it seems disconnected from the real-world concerns of agencies like Westside Cares.
There should be some kind of community-driven committee that oversees that for the city at large. The city council has committees to address the practicality surrounding the new stadium, and one could do the same about all the new housing coming in Downtown. How is the money being spent? How are people’s needs being addressed? What we don’t need is the delegation of a master plan created from above. We will be in the center of housing issues in the near future. For the Westside specifically, Westside Cares has received funding already for people being evicted, and the organization will be involved in housing in the future.